It has been more than a decade since Jeff Van Gundy coached the Knicks, ancient history by most NBA standards. Yet somehow it does not seem all that long ago, in part because of how little the team has accomplished since he left, and in part because Van Gundy hasn't exactly gone away.
He already has worked three of the Knicks' first four playoff games as an ESPN / ABC analyst and witnessed two victories -- one more than their postseason total in the previous 12 years since his departure. (Game 5 is on MSG and TNT, but Van Gundy will be back if the series goes six or seven.)
Professionally, Van Gundy has handled the assignment like he does most, with humor and candor. But given his history with the team, he admitted to feeling something extra as he watches all this unfold.
"I think it's awesome," he said in an interview before the weekend games in Boston. "I am still a huge New York Knicks fan. Because of all the time I spent there, it would be impossible not to be."
Van Gundy was an assistant from 1989-96, then head man from '96 to early in the 2001-02 season, an era that produced memorable playoff moments, some of which featured him. (See Mourning, Alonzo, 1998.)
"I thought they unwisely let [Woodson] go in Atlanta, and for him to get this chance and make the most out of it I think is terrific," Van Gundy said. "The same thing with Carmelo Anthony. People in the media, for whatever reason, focus on what they think he doesn't do well versus what he does do well."
And then there is Smith, who often is compared to John Starks and now has another thing in common with him, having been ejected from a playoff game for elbowing the Celtics' Jason Terry 20 years after Starks was booted for his head-butt of the Pacers' Reggie Miller. (Current Celtics coach Doc Rivers was Starks' Knicks teammate at the time.)
"People try to equate them because of their fiery demeanors but their games, to me, could not be more different," Van Gundy said. "Starks was a better player. He has an All-Star and was on perennial winners. But their personalities on the court maybe were a little bit similar."
Van Gundy, who picked the Knicks to beat the Celtics in five games before the series began, said he considers the Knicks the second-best team in the East, with a chance to upset the Heat given a few breaks (assuming both teams survive the second round). If that happens, he will find himself working Knicks games in the Finals at MSG.
How cool would that be?
"Every time I come in there I look for the tunnel," he said, referring to the decades-old route to the court before the renovation began. "I can feel walking down that hallway and turning into the tunnel and the chills it gave me. I realize just how lucky I was to coach the Knicks when we had some great players. It was awesome, and it still is.
"When that's your first job and you were there so long you think it will be like that everywhere and when you go around the NBA it's just not. Only then do you realize how good you had it."